Apocalyptic Climate Reporting Completely Misses the Point | The Nation
Apocalyptic Climate Reporting Completely Misses the Point Recent news commentary ignored the UN climate report’s cautiously optimistic findings. By Daniel Aldana Cohen NOVEMBER 2, 2018
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October 2018: Participants in the “Save the forest! Coal stop” demonstration, Kerpen, North Rhine-Westphalia.(Christophe Gateau / Picture-alliance / dpa / AP Images) Ready To Fight Back?Sign up for Take Action Now and get three actions in your inbox every week.
Are we doomed? It’s the most common thing people ask me when they learn that I study climate politics. Fair enough. The science is grim, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just reminded us with a report on how hard it will be to keep average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But it’s the wrong question. Yes, the path we’re on is ruinous. It’s just as true that other, plausible pathways are not. That’s the real, widely ignored, and surprisingly detailed message of the IPCC report. We’re only doomed if we change *nothing*. The IPCC report makes it clear that if we make the political choice of bankrupting the fossil-fuel industry and sharing the burden of transition fairly, most humans can live in a world better than the one we have now.
And yet doom is what’s being amplified by seemingly every major newspaper and magazine , and the mainstream media more broadly. A standout example was David Wallace-Wells’s hot take on the IPCC report for *New York *magazine, charmingly titled, “UN Says Climate Genocide Is Coming. It’s Actually Worse Than That .” There’s a lot to say about the emotional texture of this kind of reporting. But the deeper problem is how this coverage fails to capture climate breakdown’s core cause-and-effect dynamic, thus missing how much scope for action there still is
Reporting on the IPCC, and climate change more broadly, is unbalanced. It’s fixated on the predictions of climate science and the opinions of climate scientists, with cursory gestures to the social, economic, and political causes of the problem. Yet analysis of these causes is as important to climate scholarship as modeling ice-sheet dynamics and sea-level rise. Reductionist climate reporting misses this. Many references to policy are framed in terms of carbon pricing. This endorses the prevailing contempt in establishment circles for people’s capacity to govern themselves beyond the restrictions of market rule. Meanwhile, the IPCC report is overflowing with analyses showing that we can avoid runaway climate change, improve most people’s lives, and prioritize equality through a broad set of interventions.
It remains physically possible to keep global warming at a relatively safe 1.5 degrees Celsius, and certainly a less safe—but not apocalyptic—2 degrees. This would require dramatic changes in economic policy and doubling down on the powers of public planning. Taxing carbon is essential, but is just one of many complementary tools. Using “command and control” regulatory methods, the Clean Air Act cleaned up much of the United States years before “market mechanisms” became famous. Indeed, “command and control” is the centerpiece of the best climate policies in the United States. Take California: There, the state’s regulatory mandates forcing utilities to source more renewable energy are the main reason emissions have gone down. In contrast, the market-mechanism piece of California’s climate policy, a “cap and trade” program, has failed to slash emissions; it may even have facilitated a moderate increase in carbon pollution in the state’s poorest neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, worldwide, a thumping clean-energy revolution is the story of markets fostered by activist government policy . Government research labs and grants, regulation of utilities, subsidies for homeowners to install solar panels, cheap loans for clean energy, and electric-car manufacture are yielding a boom in clean energy. In 2017 , global wind energy capacity grew by 10 percent, and solar photovoltaic capacity by 32 percent.
Change is also coming from below. When German environmentalists pushed their government to subsidize clean energy, there was an explosion of community wind farms in their country , and solar-panel manufacturing in China to meet German demand. In the United States, the Sierra Club and its allies have managed to get hundreds of coal plants shut down early, or canceled before they were built. More direct action and harsher government policies will be needed to keep more fossil fuels in the ground. Otherwise, clean energy will merely supplement fossil fuels, rather than replace them.
Despite the framing of most news coverage about it, the latest IPCC report is innovative precisely because it uses new social science to highlight the climate implications of a range of political choices. But you have to read beyond the “Summary for Policymakers” to see it. The IPCC has embraced an approach developed by climate scholars called “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways ,” or SSPs. Prior to the latest report, the IPCC projected future scenarios based on skeletal, technocratic models of energy, land use, and climate. They represented climate politics as being like a dashboard with a few dials that engineers could turn—a little more renewable energy here, a touch less deforestation there. In contrast, the SSPs imagine different possible climate futures in terms of realistic clusters of policy decisions, which in turn affect emissions, land use, and how the impacts of extreme weather are felt.